Henry Smith in his Preparative to Marriage (1591) wrote; "As God hath ordained remedies for every disease, so he hath ordained a remedie for the disease of marriage." (3) But separation was not a remedy that could be cheaply bought; and it was largely exclusive.
Then, as now, not all marriages were happy, and many couples desired to extricate themselves from a union which seemed to have the curse of hell upon it rather than the blessing of heaven.
The shadowy figure of Death could be relied on to end some marriages, for in the early modern period Death was a frequent visitor, and it was not uncommon for a person to be widowed several times in their life.
William Gouge, the famous 'conduct book' writer, wrote in his Of Domesticall Duties (1622) "...a family is a little Church and a little commonwealth."(1) The breakdown of a marriage was therefore a source of great concern.
Not particularly because it meant the relationship between a certain couple had broken down, but because it threatened social stability, and the potential breakdown of social order and hierarchy.
They were actually marry'd according to the form prescrib'd by the Church of England..are therefore man and wife both by the laws of God and the land." (4) The most common ground on which couples tried to seek an annulment, and the ground on which they appear to have been most successful, was that of pre-contract.
A couple could gain an annulment even if that pre-contract had been unsolemnized and unconsummated, and in the sixteenth century it could be granted without any proof, although some kind of evidence would normally be requested.On top of this, it would be necessary to prove that once the couple had come of age, they had not then given their consent to the union.If it seemed they had, for no matter how brief a time, then the marriage would be a legally binding one, even if it had not been consummated.Indeed, non-consummation was no guarantee that a case would be successful.In 1715 for example, Sir George Downing and his wife Mary tried to get their marriage of fifteen years annulled.Neither would it effect a wife's dower rights or the legitimacy of her children.However, there were only two grounds on which this separation could be granted; adultery or cruelty, and for the wife bringing a case against her husband, it had to be both.Martin Ingram states in his influential book, Church Courts, Sex and Marriage in England, "To be sure, unsatisfactory unions were more likely to be resolved by the early death of one of the parties than is the case today, but since the median duration of marriages in pre-industrial England may have been as high as twenty years there was still much scope for marital misery".(2) Both the law and the Church were aware that in some cases separation was necessary, and there were ways an unhappy couple could separate.Even if an annulment was granted, this would not necessarily mean an end to problems.It could be a classic case of jumping out of the frying pan into the fire.